arts and design

The Cosmic House review – a dizzying house for all seasons

“A failure of recent architecture,” wrote the critic, theorist and architect Charles Jencks 45 years ago, “has been one of communication.” He believed buildings should speak, that they should mean something to their inhabitants and passersby. “An architect’s primary and final role,” he also said, “is to express the meanings a culture finds significant.”

Jencks himself loved to communicate. He liked to talk, to debate, to disagree. He was a maniacal book engine, elaborating and (sometimes) elucidating his theories in publication after publication over a period of 40-plus years. He was sociable and witty. He and his wife, the garden designer Maggie Keswick, were generous and public-spirited: the UK’s Maggie’s cancer centres, conceived by them while she was dying of the disease, bear witness.

While Jencks planted his critical flag on a particular approach – postmodernism – he could be a staunch friend of architects such as Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster, who had different views of the world. More than anything he believed in pluralism, the idea that “an architect must master several styles and modes of communication”.

The Cosmic House.
The Cosmic House. Photograph: Sue Barr

All of which human and intellectual qualities shine from the paint and MDF and mirrors and swags and marquetry-patterned terrazzo and topiary and painting and sculpture of the Cosmic House, a four-floored Victorian residence in Holland Park in west London, which Jencks and Keswick bought in 1978. Together with the architect Terry Farrell they made the interior into a manifesto of Jencks’s ideas and a theatre of their public and private lives. Now, following Jencks’s wishes before his death in 2019, aged 80, the house has been opened to the public. A Jencks Foundation, to “promote critical experimentation”, is based there. A gallery on the lower ground floor, curated by the foundation’s artistic director, Eszter Steierhoffer, shows exhibitions drawn from Jencks’s archive.

The main floor of the house, a few steps up from the street, is high-ceilinged and large-windowed. A central cylinder, containing a spiral staircase, is surrounded by four good-size rooms, themed around the four seasons. Winter is dominated by an imposing fireplace by the American postmodernist Michael Graves, with pillars and lintel painted to look like polychromatic marble, with a burnt-orange pillar rising above the centre of the hearth to bear a bust of the Greek god of fire Hephaestus, modelled by the sculptor Celia Scott on the artist Eduardo Paolozzi. Jencks insisted she added a beard that Paolozzi didn’t have, to make him look more classically divine.

Spring has another Graves fireplace, the wall behind lightly sprinkled with stencilled plants, Jencks having rejected a design by Rem Koolhaas and the artist Madelon Vriesendorp as insufficiently vernal, despite the latter’s protestations that a pattern of coloured parallelograms evoked Dutch tulip fields. Summer is the dining room, bright, with chairs like Egyptian sunbursts and an Allen Jones painting of a nude dancing to a bearded old satyr’s lute. Autumn is the kitchen, with motifs from Hindu temples (an Indian summer, you see) and wooden spoons made into architectural decoration.

The master bedroom.
The master bedroom, reminiscent of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

There is more. The spiral stair is what Jencks called an “abstract realisation of the solar year”. Its number of steps denote the weeks of the year. The face of each is incised with seven lines, for days of the week. At the bottom of the stair is a circular plaque in the floor, by Paolozzi, which represents a black hole. You can ascend via this stair to a library like the inside of a ceremonial tent, where books are thematically arranged in a small city of building-like bookcases, and Jencks’s many thousands of 35mm transparencies are stored in slim vertical cabinets called “slidescrapers”. The upper floors include a master bedroom reminiscent of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s white timber interiors, a moon-themed dressing room, children’s bedrooms also laden with meaning. Plus Keswick’s notably undecorated study – “I understand, Charles, everything has to symbolise something,” she once said, “but symbolism stops at my door.”

You can also go down to a lower ground floor that includes a whirlpool bath by the architect Piers Gough, made to look like the inverted dome of a Roman baroque church. You can go out into a garden whose symmetrical clipped hedges culminate in an arched wooden pergola framing a mirrored door. “THE FUTURE” is inscribed upon it. You can return to the house via a double staircase in ordinary steel, operatic and industrial at once.

The whirlpool bath designed by the architect Piers Gough.
The whirlpool bath designed by the architect Piers Gough: ‘like the inverted dome of a Roman baroque church’. Photograph: Sue Barr

There is still more: countless references to quantum physics and theories of the universe and architecture from ancient Egypt to Russian constructivism. Everywhere you go there are layers and framings, glimpses from one room into another, and slivers of mirror that fold spaces and their human inhabitants into the walls and ceilings and multiply the iconography to infinity. The decor is by turns inventive and tacky. A tendency to the preposterous and grandiose is rescued by wit and playfulness. An obvious comparison is to Sir John Soane’s house and museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, another dense personal cosmos layered and reflected by its architecture.

This is a written house. Tom Wolfe, whose dandyish style Jencks liked to emulate, described in his book The Painted Word how the theories of art critics were translated into works of art. The Cosmic House could be called the Built Word, where a writer’s thoughts are made into architectural space. Even where the fabric is not precisely saying something, the decoration tends to be have lines incised in the surfaces, like some undeciphered text or musical score.

As a supercilious student and nascent critic, I was sceptical of Jencks’s approach. It seemed too literal and clumsy. I still am: if architecture communicates, it does so in a less linear way than language. I find modern astrophysics more wonderful than any attempt to represent it in building can be – architecture can find its own marvels in other ways.

But you can only be moved by the positive energy of this place. Apart from anything else the Cosmic House, in a part of London now colonised by oligarchic wealth, must be cosmically, eight-figure valuable, so it was generous to turn it to public use. Property aside, it expresses the faith that architecture means something and that it can be explored with seriousness and delight. “No other profession is specifically responsible for articulating meaning and seeing that the environment is sensual, humorous, surprising and coded as a readable text,” wrote Jencks. “This is the architect’s job and pleasure.”

The Cosmic House, 19 Lansdowne Walk, London W11, is open from 12.30-5.30pm, Wednesday to Friday, from April to December


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